The View From Guelph: Mental Health and Wellness on the Farm

Thinking clearly about mental health in agriculture

Farmers are by nature independent, private people. They’ve traditionally subscribed to a ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ philosophy when it comes to taking care of the emotional self. While farmers are outstanding stewards of the land and caregivers to their livestock and families, taking care of their own physical and mental health is not always a priority.

However, an increased incidence of suicide in farm communities across Canada has led to more focus on this critical topic. While Canada doesn’t have specific data about suicide rates within the agricultural community, a 2016 study from the University of Guelph found farmers are among the most vulnerable when it comes to mental health issues. In 2018, Western Producer reported on the results of a survey of 1,000 Canadian farmers – 45% were experiencing high levels of stress, 58% reported symptoms of anxiety, and 35% were dealing with depression. It’s alarming to note that all those figures are much higher than among the general population.

The romantic ideal of farm life doesn’t always reflect the reality

Farming can be a solitary vocation filled with pressure and uncertainty. Weather and markets can’t be controlled. Short growing seasons, start-up and seasonal investments, and long hours working with dangerous machinery and equipment add to the stress. And, when you add in the tremendous responsibility of producing safe, nutritious food for an ever-increasing consumer market, the combined stress and pressure can be overwhelming.

Compounding it all is the fact that farmers live in small, rural communities where the stigma associated with mental health, coupled with a fragmented system of mental health services and supports, makes stepping up and asking for help even more challenging.

Thankfully, the agricultural industry is taking note. Recent initiatives such as the Do More Agriculture Foundation (https://www.domore.ag/), Au Coeur des Familles Agricoles (https://acfareseaux.qc.ca/fr), Farm Credit Canada’s Rooted in Strength and the National 4-H Healthy Living Initiative are all designed to help farmers and farm families deal more openly with mental health and wellness. Additionally, the federal government and many provincial governments are also providing funding and programs to help farmers reach out, share information, and provide support.

In today’s fast-moving, pressure-filled agricultural world, being told to “cowboy up” doesn’t cut it. We all share a responsibility to be diligent in noticing the warning signs of stress, anxiety and depression, and be willing to step up, speak up, and offer support when needed. For those of us in the industry, throwing financial support behind one or more of the organizations or initiatives helping to make a difference is a sound investment in a healthier future for the entire agricultural sector!

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